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A teacher and her student step into the swing revival

Tuesday, December 01, 1998

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

She has delicate feet and a ponytail. He has wide-wale corduroys and big sneakers. He has come for his third lesson, a long drive from California University.

  Brandon Cunning tries to keep the beat in his head as Cheryl Obal leads him through a swing dance lesson in her apartment. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Cheryl Obal's West Oakland apartment living room is the dance floor. She rents, the ceiling is really high and all the effects are college-student scruffy. A microwave in the living room, bare walls. She and her student, Brandon Cunning, are both 22. She goes to Point Park College.

This small moment with Obal and Cunning is a sliver of the swing-dance craze that an unlikely fold of 20-somethings has engendered nationwide over several years.

Locally, there's swing dancing at Heaven Downtown on Thursdays, the Soba Lounge in Shadyside on Fridays, the Pollinator Lounge in Oakland's Beehive on Sundays. Farther flung is the Rhino Room in Huntington Beach, Calif., the Savoy in Manhattan. It's everything grunge isn't (wasn't). Swing-dance links on the World Wide Web go on for pages and by region. It's part of the same phenomenon that explains why people under 30 are singing along with Tony Bennett.

Obal put an ad in the City Paper to announce her venture: "Private lessons in my home." So you won't feel intimidated. She got a few bites and teaches three nights a week.

Cunning took one free lesson at a dance school Downtown and says he realized the free lesson was meant to get him to sign on for more. There were lots of people in the class, and he felt intimidated.

"When I was a little kid, I loved old movies where they danced," says Cunning. "I've always been interested in learning. Most people I know dance moving back and forth." To demonstrate, he moved like an inflatable punching-bag just moments away from winding to a stop.

Obal grew up northwest of Philadelphia, surrounded by Amish farms and ballet lessons. Her concentration now is in jazz dance, and she swing dances for fun.

Last summer, while studying with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City, she was invited to be one of the swing dancers on a local show called "School's Out: Fast Forward Friday." Last year, she saw an ad at Point Park for dancers and won a spot in a revue that performed for six months at a Japanese mountain resort.

"Keep the beat in your head," she tells Cunning, whose honey-colored hair is boyishly floppy as he steps off rhythm as if it were a curb. "Don't look at me."

"OK," he says doubtfully.

Moments later: "You've got it!" she says. "I think you're ready to go faster."

He murmurs, "Oh no," and she puts on "Zoot Suit Riot," by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.

"Get the bounce in there," she said. "Loosen up your knees."

Obal has taught dance for an after-school arts program at Urban Pathways, a charter school on the North Side, and at a private ballet studio.

Cunning says that at his college, he and several friends go out to swing dance at clubs where someone shows up to teach, but that the teachers sometimes don't really know how to swing dance credibly.

"It's a little bit of a fad at school," he said. "The girl I was dancing with was doing all this crazy stuff. She started going around me. What do I do in that case? Stand still?"

"Yeah," said Obal, her face twisted in puzzlement. "You'd have to."

Obal punches the tape deck on the floor and they resume their steps. They are dancing. They continue to dance. Nothing but music and the bobbing of a lamp.

End of song.

"You've got it!" she cries. "And something really cool happened. We rotated without even thinking about it."

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